Given that he built his reputation on testosterone-driven drama, it’s interesting to note that two of Martin Scorsese’s most important early pictures were about women. His first feature was a grimy black-and-white indie starring Harvey Keitel, and it took him five years to get a legit directing gig, helming the female-oriented Boxcar Bertha (1972) for Roger Corman. He returned to his NYC comfort zone for Mean Streets (1973), which in a roundabout way became the audition piece that convinced Ellen Burstyn to select him as the director of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the actress’ first major project after earning an Oscar nomination for The Exorcist (1973). Burstyn has repeatedly told the story of how she hired the hungry young filmmaker: She asked him what he knew about women, and he said, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” And learn he did, because even though the resulting picture is driven by Burstyn’s powerhouse performance as a single mom making do as a waitress until her singing career takes flight, the movie is infused with Scorsese’s freewheeling camerawork and quasi-improvisational dramatic interplay. The opening bit, a smart-ass homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939), cleverly tells the viewer that this won’t be an ordinary “women’s picture,” and the tough-talking, unsentimental dramedy that follows easily fulfills that promise. The film boasts one vivid scene after another, from the funny/sharp exchanges between Alice (Burstyn) and her precocious son (Alfred Lutter) to the harrowing scenes of Alice’s volatile relationship with a younger man (Keitel). Supporting Burstyn is a terrific (and terrifically diverse) cast including Jodie Foster, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd, and Vic Tayback, who debuts the “Mel” character he reprised on the hit sitcom Alice (1976-1985), which was based on this film. Burstyn won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance, and the film’s success paved the way for Taxi Driver (1976) because Scorsese had finally demonstrated the ability to direct a solid box-office performer.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: RIGHT ON